Fragments of a Festival, a Festival of Fragments: Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood, August 3—7, 2011

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Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood, August 3—7, 2011

Thursday, August 4: Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman conducting; Fred Sherry, cello solo; The New Fromm Players, Tanglewood Music center Fellows

Fred Ho, Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball! (2011)

Tobias Picker, Sextet no. 2, “Halle’s Ravine” (1977)

Jason Eckardt, Rendition, for bass clarinet and piano (2006)

Brian Ferneyhough, Terrain for solo violin and chamber ensemble (2005)

Milton Babbitt, More Melismata for solo cello (2006)

John Chowning, Voices for soprano and electronics (2005)

John Zorn, À Rebours (in memoriam György Ligeti) for solo cello and nine players (2011)

Saturday, August 6

Jonathan Keren, Multiscala for mandolin and string trio (2007)

Jo Kondo, Beginning, Middle and End for flute and string quartet (1987)

George Flynn, Pieces of Night for solo piano (1986-89)

Sunday, August 7 at 8 pm: The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra

Andrew Norman, Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Splatter Splash (2005), conducted by Case Scaglione

Jo Kondo, In Summer (2004), conducted by Ken-David Masur

Felipe Lara, Onda (2007), conducted by Case Scaglione

David Felder, Inner Sky (1994/99), conducted by Robert Treviño, flute soloist Marie Tachouet

Christopher Rouse, Phaeton (1986), conducted by Stefan Asbury


As curated by Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938), this year’s festival featured music that spanned a half-century, weighted toward the recent past, with a significant number of older composers heard from whose names are still relatively unfamiliar. This could be taken as an effort on Wuorinen’s part to offer recompense to some of his (relatively) neglected contemporaries.

Of twenty-three composers performed, only four are 40 or younger, constituting the smallest age-demographic group. Composers in their 50’s, 60’s, and over 70’s received stronger representation. This enabled the listener to revisit the second half of the twentieth century while catching up on recent stylistic developments. The emerging picture was surprising—there was no single pattern of historical development to be perceived. The notion that musical style progresses in clear directions received no illustration; neither evolving serialism, electronics or neo-tonality predominated. mixed influences were so frequently demonstrated, including all of the above in a single work, that each composition could be viewed as sui generis, characterized by a predominating uniqueness of voice but nourished by various twentieth century stylistic trends. What Allan Kozinn, in his review of the festival (NY Times, Aug. 9) dubbed “style wars” can be declared over. Whether everyone is a potential victor remains up to the individual listener to decide.

I was only able to attend three of the seven concerts, and thus (with the exception of Jo Kondo) missed the chance to hear multiple works by individual composers. Many of the performances were my first exposure to a particular composer. More familiar figures, such as Milton Babbitt, John Zorn, Christopher Rouse, provided the opportunity to renew and deepen acquaintance. Older figures whose music was previously unknown to me were Jo Kondo, John Chowning, David Felder, George Flynn, and even Brian Ferneyhough, a leading British modernist figure with whose music I should become better acquainted. (After hearing his Terrain, I am looking forward to doing just that.) This review will discuss works that caught my attention for particular reasons; others, worthy in themselves, will be passed over in silence.

Impressive young talents included Andrew Norman (b. 1979), whose brilliant orchestral tour-de-force Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Splatter Splash (2005) inhabits the select company of children’s pieces (Peter and the Wolf, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) that score big successes with adults. The work utilized the widest possible range of orchestral moods and textures in a tight time-format; the changes were so rapid as to suggest cartoon music, and there were definite Hollywood moments. Each verb of the title was easy to identify and fun to (try to) anticipate. Greater aesthetic challenge was provided by another younger composer, Jonathan Keren (b.1978), whose chamber work Multiscala (2007) for mandolin and string trio (heard Saturday afternoon) displayed brilliant writing for the instruments and an ingenious and successful approach to form. Both of these works built forms innovatively out of heterogeneous fragments with rapid and inventive transitions, a kind of mosaic approach to form that feels completely appropriate to the present moment in our culture: both works seemed like they would appeal to those with both long and short attention spans. Kener’s work was built in seven sections each of which contained seven mini-sections that reflected the macro-structure. The formal components were clearly distinguishable through textural contrasts, somewhat akin to the Zorn work discussed below. The integration of mandolin and strings worked in the most varied ways, and the combination, though rarely encountered, seemed like an obvious one, thanks to the brilliant and assured performance by Avi Avital on mandolin and his TMC student colleagues.

Jason Eckardt
Jason Eckardt

The oldest member of the youth contingent was Jason Eckardt (b.1971), whose duo for bass clarinet and piano, Rendition (2006) was heard Thursday night. The title refers to the practice of sending prisoners out of the United States to be interrogated in places without the restraints against torture that supposedly inhibit that process at home. Whether you thought about the meaning of the title while listening or not, this was a powerful and continuously developing statement that started quietly in the depths, reminiscent of “Nacht” from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and ending with super-long notes sustained in the piano until almost silent, with dense interplay built up in the center, including brutally pounded low piano clusters and microtonal inflections in the bass clarinet, performed with great commitment by Bill Kalinkos and Oliver Hagen. This work carried enormous conviction and moral fervor of a kind that would be echoed in George Flynn’s Pieces of Night (1986-9) for piano heard two days later. Both works were inspired by outrage at American foreign policy, Flynn’s by the war in Vietnam and Eckardt’s by more recent events.

Flynn’s mammoth double cycle (and work-out, shared by the composer and TMC pianist Nolan Pearson) consisted of five pieces in two alternating groups: three “American Nocturnes” and two entitled “Myoclonus” or muscle spasm. The title of “nocturne” was chosen against type: there was nothing peaceful or soothing about these huge movements. And the work was about as pleasant to listen to as a muscle cramp. This is not a criticism; the intention is to pass the listener through a painful experience, as described in Flynn’s quotation from T. S. Eliot in his program note: “The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire, / Wherein, if we do well, we shall / Die of the absolute paternal care / That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.” Flynn’s work is obsessively single-minded; all fifty minutes are based on a three-note cell (G sharp—D—A) that keeps the same limited vocabulary of intervals in our ears through seemingly millions of notes. The writing is at high energy levels, including piano clusters pounded out repeatedly with both arms. While “painful” and “boring” are obvious adjectives, I found, sitting through the entire work, that I passed through several stages, including fascination, distaste, frustration, hypnotic state, anger, and out the other side to amazement and finally, at the closing quiet perfect fifth, to a powerful and unexpected sense of resolution and relief. But I cannot honestly say what any other listener would experience; this is a work that should not be sprung on a listener unawares.

Fred Ho
Fred Ho

[Graphic 3: Creeping Meatballism, Mad Magazine]

Another composer, Fred Ho, registered his disapproval of contemporary American cultural norms but in a good-humored fashion with his Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball! (2011) which supplied the opening to five of the seven concerts. Cognoscenti of a certain age will recognize the origin of the title as a coinage of the legendary Jean Shepherd, a ‘50s New York radio personality who defined “Creeping meatballism” as conformity.

Wally Wood, Creeping Meatballism, Mad Magazine, March-April 1957 Volume 1, Number 32.
Wally Wood, Creeping Meatballism, Mad Magazine, March-April 1957 Volume 1, Number 32.

Shepherd wrote “The American brags about being a great individualist, when actually he’s the world’s least individual person. The idea of thinking individually has become a big joke.…The guy who has been taken in by the ‘Meatball’ philosophy is the guy who really believes that contemporary people are slim, and clean-limbed, and they’re so much fun to be with… because they drink Pepsi-Cola.” [etc]. In that spirit, Ho supplied program-notes which alphabetically itemized the sins of modern society, such as “acquiring acquisitiveness, bovine blandness, complicated corniness…” [etc]. His quartet of trumpets and trombones rooted itself in Stan Kenton’s big band sound and took off from there with outrageous, interrogative group slides, vocal yells, unpitched blowing through instruments, and generally amusing, irreverent and well-organized mayhem. Each performance that I heard was a bit different, and everyone had a good time with it.

Jo Kondo
Jo Kondo

The composer I did get to hear twice was Jo Kondo, an older-generation Japanese composer whose distinctive voice seems beholden to Morton Feldman and to traditional Japanese music. It bears little resemblance to the music of his older colleague Toru Takemitsu. Kondo’s music is described as “austere,” “monodic,” based on a concept of “on note after another” (in Robert Kirzinger’s program notes). His chamber-work for flute and string quartet, Beginning, Middle, and End, consisted of a series of homophonic, dissonant harmonies (lots of major 7ths and minor 9ths) within which one can discern a single moving melodic line. The rhythm of each gesture is similar but not identical, and the music is mostly gentle and quiet. I found that the combination of astringent and interesting harmonies with the peaceful but flexibly unpredictable flow of rhythm made for an entrancing listening experience prompting a mental state that was both meditative and alert. It made me look forward to hearing his orchestral work In Summer (2004) which displayed a similar formal process, but that proved disappointing. The shape of the orchestral piece was (fittingly) more dramatic, climaxing in great, sustained full-orchestra chords that made the piece sound like a giant attempting to walk with great weights chained to his legs. This was followed by lighter textures and a re-established rhythmic flow to conclude. The problem may have been with the performance by the TMC orchestra under Ken-David Masur’s direction. Each chordal moment was articulated with a carefully played harmonic swell, but the repetition of that pattern created a sense of a succession of tiny “phraselets” rather than the meditative continuity of the chamber work, and the effects of the subtle colorations were neutralized. Allan Kozinn in the Times liked this work more than I did, and I’m glad about that: there is something about the subtle modesty of this composer that is endearing even when the music did not seem totally successful. We need to hear more of it to make a better assessment.

Two older composers who used electronics mixed with live sounds provided intriguing and contrasting experiences. John Chowning (b. 1934) seems to have spent more time in audio labs than in composing over the past five decades, but he produced a stunning piece, Voices (2005) for soprano and electronics. Using pitches based on natural overtones (therefore requiring the use of micro-tones), Chowning’s work theatrically evokes the oracle at Delphi through electronic manipulation of live voice and added computer-generated ambient sounds (not accompaniment) which moved dramatically across the stage. The notion of starting with the acoustics of sacred spaces, real or imagined, has been used before, notably in the work of Robert Gluck.

Chowning uses original Greek texts from Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Heraclitus, Herodotus, and Plutarch. (The program also lists Lucan, who wrote, however, in Latin.) Soprano Amy Petrongelli, strikingly clothed in a black off-the-shoulder gown, also moved across the stage (filled with percussion instruments for another piece) in a ritualistic manner, turning and gesturing at various points; the combination with electronically-controlled resonance, natural overtones, and movement of sound in space worked transformatively—there was no trace of false theatricality and the virtuosity of both live and electronic components merged into an acoustical, spatial, and ritualistic entity. The audience was transfixed.

David Felder’s Inner Sky for flute soloist (with four instruments: piccolo, C-flute, alto flute, and bass flute) along with strings, percussion, and electronics, seemed a more conventional piece, but also realized with great virtuosity by soloist Marie Tachouet. Here the integration of diverse elements was less seamless. The electronics joined the orchestral sounds with varying degrees of conspicuousness, mimicking the acoustic instruments. When heard by themselves, the effect was less spectacular, lacking the dramatic spatial dimension of Chowning’s piece. The main interest was in the solo part, which moved gradually down the scale of instruments from ear-splitting piccolo (multiplied electronically) at the beginning and middle to almost inaudible bass-flute at the end. The program note (by Frank Oteri) described the moment when the alto flute begins, accompanied by computer-processed flute sounds, as resembling “primitive wind instruments from some paradoxically future ancient society.” It may take a very generous imagination to conjure such an image amidst the complex diversity of this elaborate work, which, unlike Chown’s piece, did not emerge with a single clear expressive profile. The impression of multiplicity of means and gestures, of sound and fury, did not merge into a memorable single experience.

Milton Babbitt
Milton Babbitt

The eldest composer featured in the Festival was the recently deceased Milton Babbitt, to whom tribute was paid several times. Fred Sherry played his solo cello piece More Melismata (2006) on Thursday night, before tackling the solo part to John Zorn’s À Rebours. Contemporary music is notoriously difficult to play, and many performances simply express the tension and effort of just getting the right notes at the right times. Babbitt’s music being the touchstone of mid-century complexity and hyper-serialism, performances are often characterized by that kind of tension, and sometimes rightly so, since Babbitt can ask for the edgiest jittery rhythmic character imaginable. But there is another, less often acknowledged side to his music, a kind of lyricism that emerges, not without struggle, but all the more affecting because of it. The performer who can deliver this quality must, of course, have total mastery of the technical demands, which are formidable; and there are few who can pull off the kind of effortless expressiveness in the midst of continuous rapid traversal of the entire range of the instrument that Sherry accomplished. The cellist’s total involvement was visible in his face, but it had to do with intensity of expression—Sherry was virtually singing along, experiencing the piece as pure expression. It was a whole-hearted, deeply moving tribute to the composer and gift to the audience. It certainly should make those present willing to listen to Babbitt with new ears.

Babbitt used the word “maximalism” to describe his music as an antonym to the minimalism of Reich et al. One way that even a solo cello piece achieves a maximal level of information density is through organization by layers which are sorted out by register, hence the constant motion across the full range of the instrument. It is the same technique that Bach employed in his solo cello suites, but with wider range and with systematic organization extending into rhythms and dynamics which, paradoxically, diversify the music’s surface in ways that can sound random or bewildering. And while Babbitt’s music is sometimes pejoratively described as an historical “dead end,” there was plenty of other recent music heard at the festival to overturn this draconian judgement. An outstanding example, and one which clearly gained audience affection, was the mini-concerto Terrain by Brian Ferneyhough. This very impressive and complex work, scored for violin solo and eight-instrument ensemble replicating the scoring of Varèse’s Octandre, exists in a world of Babbitt-level maximalism, but incorporates post-modern linguistic and aesthetic influences as well. The solo part looks virtually unplayable (see the score graphic) and yet it was realized with panache by soloist Christopher Otto. About this part, Ross Feller has written “…performer is faced with the paradox of reading two distinct layers of information while attempting to perform them as one. With this technique Ferneyhough seeks an ‘active projection of multiplicity (in the sense of incorporating alternative and competing trajectories as constituent contradictions making out an essential element of their expressive substance).’”

Brian Ferneyhough: Terrain Score, page 2
Brian Ferneyhough: Terrain, Score, page 2

Not much less difficult are the ensemble parts, expertly played by members of Ensemble Signal and held authoritatively together by their conductor Brad Lubman. Space permits only the most brief indication of the subject-matter and influences embodied in this work; an on-line article by Ross Feller can be consulted for more (much more) detail. Feller cites a triad of influences: from the visual/conceptual artist Robert Smithson, from the poet A. R. Ammons whose poem “Terrain” gave this work its title and suggestive imagery, and from Varèse, whose discussion of the process of crystallization here finds a form of realization. Ammons’ poem says “the soul is a region without definite boundaries” which seems to be evoked by the continuously restless, flightily and insubstantial activity of the violin. The idea of sedimentary layers that defines the features of terrains precipitates out in the concerto-like interplay between violin and instrumental ensemble, whose utterances sound grounded, vertically-oriented, and often weighty. This references Ammon’s “vision of two worlds, one fecund and living, the other rough-hewn, seemingly motionless, but subject to tremendous subterranean pressures.” Among other natural processes referenced in Ammons’ poem are erosion, fracturing, and sedimentation. While these can be taken as somewhat arbitrary metaphors, the music succeeded in vividly conveying the presence of complex natural processes. Babbitt’s music may require unusually heightened attention to detail, but Ferneyhough’s seems to permit a more relaxed, even meditative listening posture since the outcome of all this complex detail is, like the shape of a landscape, easily perceivable. The effect is enlivening and stimulating, even a bit shocking, but never assaultive; the music continually engages the listener in its dialogue. It seems no accident that this work is one of the composer’s series of mini-concertos for soloist and large chamber ensemble. The medium allows each player to clearly project its own fiercely complex material, and yet all these strands of texture combine into an eloquent dramatic whole.

John Zorn
John Zorn

Another brilliant work that used a similar instrumental configuration but in a less layered way was John Zorn’s mini-concerto for cello and nine players (including a prominent harp part and three percussionists) À Rebours, the title taken from a “decadent” fin-de-siècle (1884) novel by J-K. Huysmans translated (in my edition) as “Against the Grain.” Zorn’s violin concerto Contes de Fées performed at Tanglewood two years ago. It had the composer’s superabundance of energy and ideas, but I found the balance between soloist and orchestra problematic, and the textures so busy as to frequently obscure the through-line. In À Rebours, the textures were more transparent and balance was only occasionally an issue, when the cello’s activity was absorbed into that of the other three strings; and even so, the through-line emerged clearly and compellingly. Although Zorn’s eclecticism is well-known, this work did not display any obviously heterogenous material, despite the use of a whirling plastic tube as a percussion instrument. Its complex harmonic language and restless rhythmic character placed it closer to the maximalist position than to any other that I could readily identify. Color did play a larger independent role than in Ferneyhough’s piece: sections were marked off by instrumental textures, with much made of the contrasts between ‘dry’ (pizzicato, unresonant percussion, etc) and ‘wet’ (bowed strings, ringing metal percussion, sustained harp arpeggios). The cello was permitted lyrical moments which were amplified, imitated, and transformed by the ensemble, and eloquent use was made of silences occurring in unpredictable places (parallel to the frequent use of disruption in Terrain). The surface is sometimes flowing and continuous, at other times fractured and prismatic; these qualities shape the larger course of events over the ten-minute-plus duration. The dramatic relationship between soloist and ensemble, and the evolving roles of color and texture make this work engaging and delightful all the way through. The subtitle indicates Ligeti as an important, though subtle influence. Both composers generate music out of enthusiasm and curiosity for musical possibilities, and compel the listener to follow them with a sense of joie de vivre. One way to interpret Zorn’s title might be “Against Fashion.” Although maximalism is out of fashion, Zorn, whose eclecticism can make him the hippest composer in the room, is clearly just doing what he likes, even if it means reclaiming a piece of the recent past that has sometimes been viewed with scorn.

Contemporary music and contemporary audiences are continually in the process of finding each other. Contemporary music events still occur in something of a ghetto situation: the small, self-selected audiences seek them out and are on the composers’ side from the start. Even at Tanglewood, the halls were not crowded, and many present were other composers, performers, and students. Other audience members were veterans of other such events and predisposed to listen. They did not expect each piece to be a home run; even walks and stolen bases were appreciated. Such a posture is essential if new voices are to be heard and evaluated. Charles Wuorinen, often perceived as a leading “uptown” figure, is to be congratulated for bringing together such a diverse group of works, styles, musical gestures, and aesthetic attitudes. It did not by any means cover the full spectrum of contemporary American music, and maximalism showed its flag clearly enough; but the dualities that marked musical politics of thirty or forty years ago have blurred their boundaries, and the forces of sedimentation, erosion, and crystallization continue to work their way through the creative imaginations of new generations of brilliant musicians who do not sit and lament the passing of greatness out of our culture, but look forward with enthusiasm to the richness of talent around us and the unlimited possibilities that offers for an exciting musical future. Where that may lead in terms of audiences is unknown—already younger listeners are receptive to genre-bending works experienced in new settings, free of the ritualized solemnities of traditional concerts. On the evidence of this year’s Festival, there is plenty of appropriate music available for them to listen to.

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